Lisa Dahl

I spent my career in the fashion business, selling fashion footwear to department stores. It was a very good living, but I was also a good cook and I had always wanted to have a restaurant with my son, Justin.

But that all changed more than 20 years ago, when Justin was murdered.

After the tragedy, everything stopped for me. My job in fashion no longer served me. It didn’t feel right anymore. I didn’t feel the same about traveling and being on the road all the time and selling products.

When you cook with love, you feed the soul.

 

I raised Justin in the Bay Area, and I couldn’t bear to stay there after his death. I left and moved to Sedona, Arizona, because it was a place that everyone said was such a healing place. I thought, “What a good place to start over.”

When I got here, I just explored. A year later, a location came up and my boyfriend at the time, a professional Italian chef, and I put our creative forces together to open Italian restaurant Dahl & DiLuca.

I’ve since opened the rustic Italian Cucina Rustica, pizzeria Pisa Lisa and Latin-inspired Mariposa.

Mariposa Interior
Mariposa

Justin was not able to be a part of this part of my career, but he is the reason I ended up in this business. I believe that I’m guided to my cooking through my son, and I feel his presence all the time, especially when I’m creating something new.

He also still helps me heal.

I recently had a viral lung infection and nothing sounded good to me. It was a rare time that I actually stayed home from the restaurants. Every night, I would have my original Sopa di Justino, which is a lightly spicy, savory, roasted chicken and vegetable soup. I had a bowl of soup a day, and it felt like it was saving me. This soup was Justin’s favorite, so I named it in his honor. My mother is 93 and she never comes to Mariposa without eating that soup.

The longer that I make my soups and interact with people, the more I see that it is a universal elixir.

 

In my early days in the restaurant business, I was able to discover the healing power of soups. I would make these elixirs for people who were coming off of radiation, who had no palate and who were dropping weight. Soups gently coax the appetite, but they’re also the ultimate comfort food. You might not be in the mood to eat, but a soup can really heal you.

I’ve also launched Project Soup Hope in my restaurants, donating 50 percent of all soup sales to hurricane relief in places like Texas, Florida, Mexico and Puerto Rico. So far, we have donated over $20,000 to World Central Kitchen.

The longer that I make my soups and interact with people, the more I see that it is a universal elixir.

Dahl Pollo al Rustica
Dahl and DiLuca’s Pollo al Rustica

I have a mantra that I say every day: When you cook with love, you feed the soul. I find that when I’m really able to put my intention into the food, you can taste the love.

That’s something that’s very hard to do when you own four restaurants that are serving nearly 400,000 guests a year. We really focus on making every layer of food flavorful and nutritious.

I love adding character to vegetable dishes. To be well-balanced, to have beautiful color, can be prideful. Sometimes I do things like a creamy braised kale with braised bacon and caramelized onions, with decadent organic kale we grow here locally, and all-natural bacon from a source that uses no hormones, antibiotics or GMOs. Everything I create, I try to keep pure and the most natural so I can live with my own self as a chef.

From the minute you drive into a driveway, each restaurant has to tell a story from the street.

 

That desire to nurture guests extends to the decor, as well. I want you to feel like you are walking into my living room. From the minute you drive into a driveway, each restaurant has to tell a story from the street. You lose sense of where you are and you’re sucked into the environment in a way that it becomes a sensory memory. It can elevate the dining experience.

I want all my restaurants to feel romantic. I want them to feel like you’ve found your favorite place and you forget that you’re there. If you’re in love, or you’re going through something difficult, whatever it might be, you are celebrating that moment of dining like it could be your last meal.

Each restaurant has a personality. With its gentle walls and Venetian plaster, I call Dahl & DiLuca “the shrine to the divine,” because you can feel the angelic presence of my son. Cucina Rustica means “rustic kitchen,” so I designed it with that in mind. Pisa Lisa was previously a Pizza Hut, so I disguised the old windows by painting everything in an espresso brown and filling the walls with vintage rock and roll posters.

Lisa In Mariposa Garden
Lisa Dahl in Mariposa’s garden

At Mariposa, everything’s bigger than life. It was guided to me. I know it’s angelic. It’s been the hardest thing I’ve done in my entire life. There is nothing charming about the work that’s gone into it and what I do, the stresses I go through. But it did over 100,000 covers the very first year it opened. The land here speaks to me, so I worked with an architectural designer to get the interior and exterior to fit in with the environment, but not compete with the amazing landscape.

I want people to lose themselves in my restaurants. I don’t know if I can even express how important that is to me, but it’s what I feel. If you have a beautiful restaurant and mediocre food, I will always choose based on the food. But I love if it’s a cool environment, as well.

If we let someone down in any area, from food to service, it’s unacceptable to me. I want everyone to have a very joyful experience that’s elevated beyond their expectations. I have a phrase that I’m devoted to–it’s kind of my mission statement–“Devoted to excellence, and blessed by grace.”

That’s how I feel the energy is in these restaurants. I just feel that they contain an element of magic. I am blessed to be the keeper of an energy I don’t even understand. It is so full of life, it is easy to nurture something that brings so much joy to others.

waitress tying on her apron

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A James Beard-featured chef who has hosted two sold-out dinners at the famed culinary institution in New York City, chef Lisa Dahl has pioneered the culinary scene in Sedona, Arizona, over the last 20 years. As the executive chef and owner of four restaurants in Northern Arizona’s red rock country, she has earned international acclaim for Dahl & Di Luca Ristorante Italiano, Cucina Rustica, Pisa Lisa and her newest addition, Mariposa Latin Inspired Grill. Dahl was among the first to introduce fine dining to the small town of Sedona in the late ‘90s and she is now the largest restaurateur in the area with accolades spanning the culinary spectrum. Today, Dahl Restaurant Group warmly welcomes more than 350,000 guests per year among all four restaurants.